If you are new to the Symposium enterprise, or even if you’ve been reading with us for awhile, you might be surprised to find that we read old books without the help of extra outside material, like material that helps outline historical context, or articles about the books. We have a rule at the table: “no outside sources.”
Why in the world do we do this? If we’re not in the business of delivering lectures (like the “Great Courses” company), why, at least, couldn’t we teach – or at least mention – secondary sources? Don’t we need to know something about the historical context of the books we are reading?
We are well aware that what we do is unorthodox – that is, it goes against the grain of the orthodox academic approach to reading classics. But there is a hard shell of common sense in our approach.
The first reason has to do with the order of learning itself.
If we want to know what Aristotle or Machiavelli says, why read a commentator or listen to a lecturer when we have available the words and thoughts of the authors themselves before us? If we let the commentator or lecture bias our first, or even second, reading, we deprive ourselves of our own capacity to learn and grow through direct engagement with the words on the page. Our job is to be the steward of what we think is the very best educational experience suited to lifelong learners. If we approach the great books through “lenses”, we will see that particular reading not with our own eyes, but through the slant of this or that lecturer or commentator. These books are so rich that we would likely be missing out on other possible readings. It is simply true that we will get more out of commentators if we can first wrestle with the ideas ourselves, on the basis of our own questions and our own experience working through them. You don’t have to go it alone; the conversation supports us in this endeavor to stay close to the richness of the text and tease out or unpack possible interpretations. So we are not rejecting secondary material — we are just saying, let’s not put the cart before the horse. The horse, in this case, is your own reading, your own questions, your own ability to confront the text on the basis of your reflections.
For books that are “fiction”- epic poems, lyric poetry, plays, and novels, whether Homer or Don Quixote or Shakespeare – the problem is compounded. The information you get from a lecture or commentary about these works of poetry, can never substitute for the actual experience of confronting and ‘undergoing’ the story or the line of poetry itself. Leaning on lectures to get us through literature (by “explaining it” to us) is like taking a squiggle and straightening it into a line. You can do it, but the squiggle is gone. Or it is like thinking that the menu will do just fine, while you skip the food. You can do it, but you’ll walk away hungry. Our whole approach rests on the discovery that we can in fact go directly to the primary sources, bypassing the intermediaries, and we can read them freshly, thinking about our lives. Life is short, and these books are simply waiting for us to take them up and read them!
The second major reason for our approach has to do with our vision of conversational practice. We discourage the practice of bringing in outside sources, because it mitigates the robustness of the conversation.
A robust conversation, we think, is one in which conversants are aiming questions from the same source, working from the same ground. We will often have different questions and different readings – and sometimes we discover we have the same questions! – but working with the same material in front of us allows us to work together more clearly and richly toward a greater appreciation and understanding of the author.
The book we have on the table, is one that everyone has access to – it is our common point of reference, our common ground. If I bring up an article I have read, that says that Professor X says such and so, or if I add what I think Aristotle meant when I read him 20 years ago, I cannot expect that anyone else has access to these sources in the conversation. Everyone must depend on my knowledge of this outside material. Now, how well did I read Aristotle 20 years ago? Are my impressions correct, are they still valid? And did I really understand what Professor X said? Probably not. At least, it’s a question, but there is no way to put Professor X’s material on on the table for everyone to see.
If I am a leader, the authority I am asking everyone to accept simply crushes the conversation. The conversation is no longer a conversation, but a kind of semi-lecture. And if I am not the leader, but a participant, this outside information weakens the conversation too – for what is everyone to do with it? How should they know if what I say is right or not?
At the root, what makes the character of the conversation work is our highest aim: we are endeavoring to understand the book – whatever it is – as it understands itself. To the extent we pursue this end, our conversations become more rigorous. While it is true that many different people will turn out to have different readings, and they will consequently get different things from the conversation, the core intention is to get at the book itself, to what it is really trying to say.
I’ve heard people say they don’t care about what the author is really saying, that all that matters is what they feel, what sparks in their mind! But amidst all those sparks, I do hope that they can wonder, sooner or later, whether they have really got what the author was trying to say, and whether it is, after all, true.
In my experience, this rule we impose may cause a lot of discomfort in many – at first – because we are creatures of habit. It’s easier to go to outside sources. But if pursued, the ‘rules of the game’ rewards the time and effort, and allows you to become fearless about opening up the pages of books from all ages.
We are creatures of habit, you and I. The hardest habits to identify and change are the ones that shape our thinking and our expectations, and not a few of these habits were established early in our schooling. There came a point in our schooling when we started reading harder books. I don’t think it happens at the same time for everyone. But from that point, when harder books come into our education to the most advanced levels, we learned one thing: that you can’t read an old book without also reading outside commentary, learning graphics, lists of terms, historical notes. In fact, we learned that the most important things are found outside the book, not inside it.
If you got an A in a course, it likely meant you did all sorts of tasks very well external to the text: you learned those terms, passed multiple choice tests, mastered the lecture notes, grasped the historical context. If you were in high school over the last ten years, you likely made a video project with a group too, that expressed personal points of relevance. We were made to do everything outside the text, except the one thing that matters: that is, to read the book itself, to really read and digest it, having a sustained and direct encounter with the words on the page, engaging in a dialogue with the author, and with ourselves.
I can speak to this with some authority because I taught English to talented high school students for many years. We wonder about literacy in our country, but I do not. If literacy is failing, it seems to me quite plain that it is in part due to the fact that we do not actually read books in schools.
This will seem shocking to many, and may offend my English teacher colleagues, who try very hard to get through to kids every year. But there is no doubt in my mind, that what really happens is that we present the appearance of reading without the substance of it. What I am describing is the way English literature is taught in most schools, public and private, and all the kids expect it, and are indeed habituated to it. When they go to college, they find more of the same, except at a higher level. These habits shape our expectations: later in life, if we want to read a book, or get to know an author, but feel it is just too hard, how many of us buy the DVD course on it? Or read the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy? Or watch You Tube videos? I do not think it is a failure of nerve on our part if we reach for these outside sources to “explain” the great books to us. It is simply a matter of our collectively poor training in reading. As Montaigne would say, we too were never taught to walk upright on our own.
Imagine how perplexed my students were when I proposed that we simply sit and read together, slowly, from page one, and work through our impressions of what we see happening, right there on the page.
On the one hand, they were delighted to learn that we were ditching all the normal study baggage. Thank goodness! On the other hand, the class session was more demanding, as we stayed alert and attuned to the text for longer periods of time than any of them had ever experienced in a class.
It didn’t take very long for the class to catch on. Two boys in my class in particular, who were star athletes, and not the intellectual or reading types, were in love with Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, and even Dostoevsky’s “Brother’s Karamazov”. It was amazing and unexpected. I could see the transformation of the kids in front of me during that year.
We didn’t come up with “no outside sources rule” ourselves, of course, but learned it at a tiny liberal arts college called St. John’s College. (There are different accounts as to the source of this practice, but Jacob Klein, the College’s dean for many years, and a former student of Edmund Husserl, is the most likely philosophical source of this approach.) The practice developed there has spread to many other educational programs across the country, in various forms, although we’re still in the great minority.
The only difference is that in all of these places, a lot of books are read in a short period of time. Two seminars for Jane Austen! Three for a Platonic dialogue!
What I did with my students, and what my colleagues and I here at Symposium do with our lifelong learners, is to allow a far greater amount of leisure than what is usually practiced (school comes from the greek word “skhole”, which means leisure, after all). My experience with high school students is not an isolated case, but is confirmed by scores of teachers and students and lifelong learners of all ages across America. I’ve seen the same transformation happen in very smart readers long out of school – weekly slow reading without outside sources has that kind of an impact.
The thing is, the experience in slow direct reading in this way with a certain book gives you a far richer comprehension of the author – which means, you will have a deeper, richer understanding of, say, Don Quixote, than a student at even the best university in America, who has only spend only a few seminars, or has listened to a lecture, on the same book. Direct reading in this manner gives you something, at last, to really think about. Real food for thought, a feast for the heart.